Books: The truth, the whole truth - and nothing but

In Defence of History by Richard J Evans Granta Books, pounds 15.99 Bernard Crick applauds a champion of the historian's craft against the snobs and sceptics
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History needs defending, and, in Richard Evans, it has found a well-tempered contemporary champion. He writes clearly and calmly, treating fools with scholarly courtesy: both the Eltons and Namiers to whom "a fact is a fact - and I, sir, am master of the facts" and the post-modernists to whom all history is just an imagined narrative in which anything goes. He treats them so courteously, indeed, that their adherents might carry on reading several paragraphs of fair summary after their heads have been cut off.

History needs defending both against the complacent arrogance of many of the old school and the post-modernists to whom it is a tale told by idiots, signifying nothing but an academic job. Take the case of Paul de Man, professor of literature at Yale and a leading post-modernist theorist. In 1987, it was discovered that he had written 180 articles in a Nazi- controlled newspaper in Brussels during the Occupation. The fur flew. The philosopher Richard Rorty did not deny the facts, but regarded their disinternment as an attempt to discredit deconstruction.

Jacques Derrida, who teaches that all texts are subject to an infinite play of significations, polemicised that only his lot could know what De Man really meant. Evans points out that Derrida did not accept that deconstruction should be applied to his own utterances, and that what was at issue was not a psychological "resistance to theory" but an arrogant "resistance to history", a denial of evidence. Of course, we all interpret evidence differently, but it exists: and it needs skills to discover and experienced judgement to interpret.

That is just one example from the book. Evans's common sense also strikes hard at the old Namierite reduction of history to personal biographies, with beneath it a clear old Tory ideology: politics seen as the interplay of top persons. He shakes his head, too, over GR Elton's The Practice of History with its pompous confidence in objective truth. But he pays genuine tribute to Elton's teaching about the craft of research.

Evans plainly prefers EH Carr's What is History? of 1961, for Carr was aware that all evidence needs interpretation; but that was no excuse for riding his own ideological version of Soviet socialism. If different interpretations are possible, Evans implies, historians should say so: they should reach their own conclusions by good judgement, but give a fair picture of alternatives and insist on verifiable evidence. Historians should insist that all hypotheses are in a form open to falsification by evidence. Evans's book will now supplant both Carr and Elton.

The post-modernists force us to look at our half-buried presuppositions; but they cannot write history by spinning words. The Eltons and Namiers can teach a craft, but deny all relativities and any interaction of past and present. We need history to understand where we are, who are, and what are, the limits of manoeuvre. Richard Evans is the best British historian of modern Germany, now leaving Birkbeck College in London for the Chair of Modern History at Cambridge. His book is a rare intellectual achievement, speaking lucidly both to historians and to the general reader.

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